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Ohio lawmakers asked to change some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors

Ohio

COLUMBUS (WKBN) – On Wednesday, lawmakers in Ohio saw a portion of a ballot measure that voters in the state overwhelmingly rejected last fall.

Ohio voters have already failed Issue 1, which would have reduced the penalties for low-level drug possession offenses from fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to misdemeanors.

Now, state senators are seeing a portion of it again as part of a standalone option.

“People found that Issue 1 was far broader than that and did a lot of things they didn’t want, in terms of reducing sentences for some violent crimes,” said Ohio Public Defender Tim Young. “Otherwise, it was much more expansive than just the simple steps that SB 3 is taking.”

Young was one of several to testify in favor of the bill.

He said people convicted of low-level drug possession felonies are not the same level of threat to society as people who are convicted of more serious violent crimes.

“Let’s take our brothers, and our sisters and our uncles out of the felony world, and give them treatment in our communities and help them solve their addiction issues — which is an illness, not a crime.”

Young said by sending nonviolent offenders on low-level charges to prison, their punishment is creating a bigger problem for them and the rest of society.

“We lock them up in a prison for a short amount of time. Not enough time to provide treatment, not enough time to provide job skills training. We divorce them from every support piece they have so they are not near their families, we’ve taken away their jobs, if they had housing, they lost their housing and then we let them out but only after we’ve housed them with very violent people.”

Young said in prison, they are forced to learn how to survive in a violent world. Then when they are out, much of society rejects them.

“Felonies are America’s scarlet letter. Ninety to 95% of employers won’t even talk to you if you have a felony conviction.”

Louis Tobin is the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which opposes the bill.

“That may be true and, look, the state has taken steps to help address that,” he said. “We’ve expanded sealings so that you seal up to five felonies now, we’ve expanded the intervention in lieu of conviction process so you can walk away from a court treatment program without a conviction record.”

Tobin also said you aren’t going to prison on your first offense, or even your second or third in many situations.

“People are receiving, already, several chances at treatment by the time a person goes to jail, particularly by the time they go to prison.”

He also said the state has to be careful about the message it’s sending.

“Saying that a person can have 49 hits of heroin, and that that’s a misdemeanor offense, and that you’re going to walk away with probation and that the punishment for that is the same, if you’re an underage kid drinking a beer, doesn’t send the right message to people about how dangerous heroin is.”

Tobin said you can’t just take away the threat of prison.

“The system is not perfect. We support expanding treatment options, we support giving more people opportunities at treatment but you can’t take that ultimate consequence away or it’s gonna have tragic consequences for some people.”

Some don’t believe that.

Charles Jenkins testified in front of the committee Wednesday as well. He is the father of a heroin addict who died as the result of an overdose.

He once asked his son, Alex, why he risks death to keep doing drugs and his son told him, “We just don’t think about it that way, dad.”

“So if you have the threat of death not a deterrent, a felony is no deterrent whatsoever,” Jenkins said.

Alex couldn’t find what his dad calls a “meaningful job” after being saddled with the felony charge. Just like Young mentioned, no one wanted to give him a chance.

“He couldn’t get a job at the local dollar store,” Jenkins said. “I believe with all my heart that he would be alive today if he could have gotten employment.”

Alex never actually spent a day in prison but Tobin said we should explore separating violent offenders from nonviolent offenders in prison populations.

“Obviously, it would take some sort of commitment from the legislature and the governor to fund a lockdown treatment facility like that, but I think it’s something that’s definitely worth exploring.”

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